A long time ago—2013, in fact—in a political galaxy far, far away—the Obama years, that is—the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 bill that took pains to define marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman.”


Thanks to that decision, the federal government can no longer deny benefits—in areas ranging from taxes to pensions to health coverage—to same-sex married couples.

Nice, right? Not if you’re Representative Bill Johnson (R-OH).

“The President refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, despite his legal, constitutional responsibility to do so,” Johnson lamented in a 2013 statement to Politifact Ohio. “Then, liberals on the Supreme Court refused to defend traditional marriage itself, even though that’s what most Americans want. I will defend traditional marriage, because it’s not a government’s job to define it—it was already defined by God.” (Our italics, his beliefs.)

For now, let’s set aside the inaccuracy of the claim that “most Americans want” traditional marriage (62 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage).


The fact is that there’s no such thing as traditional marriage. There are countless marriage customs in countless traditions, and pointing to a single one of them as a monolithic baseline misrepresents the history of the institution as it’s morphed through cultures and centuries.

There were many traditional marriages in the past.

But don’t take our word for it. Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the non-partisan, non-profit organization The Council on Contemporary Families, literally wrote the book on the history of marriage. Ask her what “traditional marriage” means and you won’t find any easy answers.

“There were many traditional marriages in the past,” Coontz tells FashionBeans. “In some cultures, the tradition was for a man to marry more than one wife. In others, it was for a woman to marry more than one husband.”

And that’s just the tip of the cultural iceberg. So which tradition is Rep. Johnson referring to when he champions “traditional marriage?” We think we know: The legal and sacred romantic union between a man and a women, as developed by contemporary Western Christianity. (This discussion of marriage in the Christian academic journal First Things paints a pretty indicative picture of this perspective on the issue, even if the authors were too smart to use the hot-button term “traditional marriage.”)

The wedding of Arthur and Guinevere, Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1400s)

Well, our ancestors stretching back past the birth of Jesus sure wouldn’t recognize Rep. Johnson’s view of marriage. Here are a few of the things about today’s rosy view of “traditional marriage” that the folks who predate those traditions would think are absolutely batty:

1. Marrying didn’t have anything to do with romantic love until relatively recently.

The wedding-industrial complex is built on the notion of love, blissful love, and a celebration of that love that you’ve been dreaming about since you were a little girl. But though human beings have fallen in love since time immemorial, romance is a pretty late arrival to the institution of marriage.

The one thing that all these varieties of marriage had in common was that they were not primarily about the union of two people who fell in love.

“In some societies, descent and inheritance went through the husband; in others, it went through the wife,” says Coontz, still ticking off the varieties of matrimonial experience.

Leon Neal/AFP

“And several societies allowed marriages between people of the same sex, especially if they played distinct gender roles,” she continues. “But the one thing that all these varieties of marriage had in common was that they were not primarily about the union of two people who fell in love and married whom they pleased.”

The reality of marriage in centuries past was was much more practical than throwing the garter, doing the duck dance, and merging your bank accounts.

“For most of history, marriages were about getting in-laws,” Coontz explains. “Marriage was the main way you established cooperative relationships with other families.”

2. Marriage in many societies was anything but voluntary.

If you want to get traditional, you can’t go much further back than that “cradle of civilization,” early Mesopotamia. There was plenty of romantic love going on among the ancient Mesopotamians, as evidenced by their poetry.

Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi

In the myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal, for instance—a story that originated somewhere in the first millennium BCE—Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, misses her lover Nergal so badly that she sends the messenger god Namtar to fetch him back.

“[That god whom] you sent to me has lain with me, let him sleep with me!” Ereshkigal hollers, as reprinted by Uri Gabbay in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology. “Send me [that g]od, that he may be my husband, that he may spend the night with me!”

Outside of the Underworld, things were different for mortals. Greek historian Herodotus famously described a fifth-century BCE Mesopotamian tradition in which young unmarried women were made to stand on the auction block while men bid on their hands in marriage. A “herald” ran the wife auction.

“He began with the most beautiful. When she sold for a high price, he offered for sale the one who ranked next in beauty. All of them were then sold to be wives,” Herodotus wrote, as reprinted by the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

“The Babylonian Marriage Market” (Edwin Long, 1875) / Royal Holloway College

Of course, Herodotus often got his facts about the “Babylonians” wrong, because, as Martha Roth points out in an essay in a book about courtesans in the ancient world, “Herodotus was not talking about a historical Babylon at all, but about the non-Greek ‘other,’ about the ‘anti-type of the Greek polis’ by which the Greek population could define itself.” In other words, the ancient historian exaggerated or even fabricated stories about other nations in order to strengthen the in-group identification of his native Greeks—Roth writes that this criticism is “generally accepted among scholars.”

Even if Herodotus got the marriage auction wrong, though, there’s evidence that Mesopotamian women didn’t have much say in their choice of husband. Roth points to the Sumerian Laws Exercise Tablet, a record of the ancient Sumerian legal system, which includes the provision that if a man “deflowers in the street the daughter of a man, her father and her mother do not identify(?) him (but) he declares, ‘I will marry you”—her father and her mother shall give her to him in marriage.”

That the law is so vague on the issue of consent adds a distinct chill to the term “traditional marriage.”

3. Other societies were a lot more relaxed.

Not every early culture was as paternalistic as the Mesopotamians and some of those that followed in their footsteps. “Traditional marriage” among the Inuit or the San people of the Kalahari region might look a little more attractive to today’s marriage-minded woman. (For a more current representation, look to the last matriarchal society known today, the Mosuo tribe of China.)

A Mosuo grandmother with her great grandchildren (Milene Larsson and Xia Han/Broadly)

“Simple band-level societies, without much difference in wealth or social status, tended to have the fewest restrictions on individual choice [in marriage,] though most forbade marriage between members of the same clan or had preferential marriage partnerships with other lineages or groups,” Coontz says. “But as societies developed differences in class and rank that could be passed on through marriage and childbearing, the controls over youth increased, and they fell with particular force upon women.”

For most of history, marriages were about getting in-laws.

Women in complex, wealth-based societies couldn’t be allowed to choose their own husbands, Coontz explains, because the family had to “ensure she only bore children to a man who would further the family’s social and economic status.”

“The Arnolfini Portrait” (Jan van Eyck, 1434) / The National Gallery

This led to marriage as a system of control over women, suppressing their individual desires for the good of the family unit.

“A lot of the rituals we sentimentalize today, like the father ‘giving away’ the bride, derive from that time,” Coontz says.

Traditions carry old ways into new contexts. That can be a double-edged sword.

Marriage as a Living Tradition

We like to think that traditions are immutable, the unshifting cultural bedrock we stand upon, when in fact they shift and change and crack and tumble through the course of many generations. Marriage is no different. Just look at the changes we’ve seen throughout the 20th century.

Marriage of Count Pietro Lucchesi Palli and Princess Beatrice of Parma (1906)

“Almost every decade since the 1960s has seen an increase in our expectations of equality [between spouses,]” Coontz says. (For more on the changes in marriage and family life in the second half of the 20th century, see this article from The New York Times, to which Coontz also contributed.)

The move toward parity between husbands and wives—and, since the same-sex marriage revolution of the 2010s, couples of all description—seemed to reach some sort of tipping point in the 1990s, Coontz explains.

Look at the issue of education, once a sore subject for many men who had less schooling than their wives. Married couples in which the woman had more education, were more likely to get divorced all the way up through the 1980s, Coontz says. That’s no longer the case.

Edward Beale and Evalyn McLean (1912) / Library of Congress

Gone from many romantic unions, too, is the understanding that the husband’s role is to provide, while the wife has no choice but to be the homemaker.

“Today, couples that share housework and childcare more or less equally report the highest marital and sexual satisfaction,” Coontz says. “The erosion of old stereotypes about gender roles paved the way for acceptance of same-sex marriage and also has offered heterosexual couples new models for organizing their own division of labor.”

Those are some traditions we can get behind.

Rep. Johnson will doubtless continue the crusade for his preferred tradition of marriage. Meanwhile, new traditions continue to emerge. Here’s the cool thing about a pluralistic society, though: We don’t have to agree on just one tradition.